When American novelist James A. Michener received the Medal of Freedom in 1977, it was for his career in American letters. His many best-sellers included Tales of the South Pacific, Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko-ri, The Bridge at Andau, Hawaii, Caravans, Centennial, The Source, and many other fiction and non-fiction works. His debut novel became a celebrated Broadway musical and later an Oscar-winning film.
Less well known was Michener’s service on government boards associated with Public Diplomacy – the Advisory Commission on Information and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Michener provided a glimpse of this work in The World is My Home: A Memoir, published in 1992. Here’s a short excerpt:
My worst memory is of our libraries abroad – those centers where local young people and university professions had access to the books about America that they needed – being severely bombed or blown to pieces. It astounded me that citizens of an undeveloped country, who need all the information and wisdom they could gather, would wantonly destroy the very agency that could help them. Often as the news reached headquarters concerning this or that library’s destruction, I would visualize the carefully arranged reading room, the neat chairs, the rows of excellent books available to all who entered, and I would feel a deep sadness at the stupidity that prompted such crimes. But never in my work for USIS did I doubt the value of what we were attempting abroad, because our enemies recognized the importance of keeping their own people in ignorance of our ideas based on freedom and democracy so that they could more easily enslave them. I was proud to be a soldier in such honorable warfare. (pp. 200-201)
[Frank Shakespeare] was as dedicated an anti-Soviet warrior as ever, prodding his radio stations to combat Russian propaganda and secrecy wherever and however possible. Because of my association with the Hungarian uprising in 1956, when the belligerence of the American broadcasts ignited false hopes among the freedom fighters, I was one of several who kept reminding Frank that our stations must never again raise hopes behind the Iron Curtain that we would be unable to support, and he was careful to broadcast truth, not incitement to rebellion. (p. 206)
Michener’s memoir included short pen portraits of colleagues on these boards, including:
— Frank Shakespeare (“I believe he would have invaded the three captive Baltic states in a rowboat”)
— Frank Stanton (“he used about 96 percent of his abilities, whereas I used no more than 56 percent of mine”)
— William F. Buckley (“he convinced me that God was both a Catholic and a conservative”)
— George Gallup (“he had a keen, practical sense of what radio broadcasting could accomplish in a cold war”)
— Hobart Lewis (“voiced the sensible conservative interpretation of a subject”)
— Lane Kirkland (“a hundred battle scars that attested to his willingness to fight for the workingman”)
— Ben Wattenberg (“wise and witty”)
— Michael Novak (“the Catholic theologian, United Nations counselor, and conservative commentator”), and
— Malcolm Forbes, Jr. (“who sometimes sounded as if he considered The Wall Street Journal a little left of center”).
And those interested in the politics of federal commissions will no doubt enjoy Michener’s account of serving on the Citizen Stamp Advisory Commission, which determines which postage stamps will be issued. (pp. 218-25)
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.